Full STEAM Ahead: Filling the Gap for Critical Careers

By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt, PMP, CLTD
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University

Testing. It’s the only scientific way to determine if a human being has been exposed to COVID-19. In the past weeks, the number of tests administered in the U.S. has increased greatly, and likewise, the need for medical experts to provide quick, accurate results has also expanded.

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However, there are images of multiple cars snaked in long waiting lines outside outdoor testing centers, and some people have waited in the summer heat for hours to be tested. In addition, many testing centers are overwhelmed with the exponential increase in tests, producing a lag time in some cases that exceeds two weeks. Erica Edwards of NBC News observes: “A day after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, warned that the United States could soar to 100,000 daily new cases, a top federal health official admitted that labs across the country were scrambling to meet the demand.” According to Edwards, this lack of labs and qualified medical personnel is detrimental, as there are increasing reports of individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 who showed no detectable symptoms. Could a lack of prompt evaluation be contributing to the current pandemic? And how do we address the growing divide to find qualified medical professionals to fight COVID-19?

The Healthcare Industry Needs More Medical Professionals

The need for more medical professionals to address current health issues is not new and has been prevalent for some time. However, the COVID-19 global pandemic shone a bright light on many of the inequities in healthcare in the United States, especially among minorities, people with pre-existing health conditions, and residents of low socio-economic areas. But another area to acknowledge is finding and employing properly qualified medical professionals. Governors have requested medical professionals from other states come to address the medical professional shortage, but even then the numbers don’t add up. Simply put, there’s a shortage between the number of medical professionals the industry needs and the number of qualified professionals who are available to fill jobs. And the gap is widening.

Where Did the Gap Come from?

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) coined the term “digital divide” in the mid-1990s. This term highlights internet access and inequities among females, minorities, the elderly, and people living in rural areas. Around the same time, the National Science Foundation created the term SMET — Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology — to highlight an area of expertise that is needed to make the United States relevant as a global competitor. The term, according to researcher Lisa Catterall, was later converted to STEM in the early 1990s. And in the last five years, STEM has been rebranded as Science, Mathematics, Engineering, Arts, and Technology (STEAM) to incorporate the need to enhance the arts in society. So for more than 25 years, there have been discussions about gaps in internet access and in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

The US Education System Is Broken and Not Producing Enough STEAM Professionals

Available data not only shows a need to hire more computer specialists and medical professionals, but demonstrates the need to build sustainable education systems to produce well-qualified individuals for STEAM careers. Previous educational models encouraged students to obtain a K-12 education, then enter a post-secondary college or institution to obtain specialized education in a STEM field. As a result, students waited until the college years to be exposed to education that was specifically geared toward a STEM career. However, many colleges and universities still fail to produce the STEAM professionals needed to keep pace with the emerging needs of mainstream America. That failure, compounded with the fact that the learning environment is not suited for a diversified group of students, only complicates the issue.

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How Higher Education Changed over the Years

Many U.S. colleges and universities were founded over 100 years ago during a time when only the elite were invited to higher learning institutions. Students were fresh out of high school, attended school full time and lived on campus. They devoted the lion’s share of their daily duties to studying and social groups to support the college environment. Fast forward to 2020, however, and the student population looks dramatically different:
  1. Many students take a gap year before starting undergraduate education.
  2. Many undergraduate students are working adults (over the age of 25) who must balance work and family responsibilities while pursuing their education.
  3. Housing needs have shifted. Many students commute to/from school and/or need alternative housing to accommodate their families.
  4. Many students cannot afford college tuition and rely on financial aid, grants, and scholarships to attend school. As a result, many students have part-time jobs to make ends meet.
  5. Many students take courses outside of normal business hours including evenings and weekends. Some also study in a condensed hybrid format, dividing their classroom work between online classes and in-person courses.
  6. Many students represent a wide array of international backgrounds, socio-economic status, gender and race, factors which enhance and challenge the historical precedents of who should go to college.
  7. Some students are military servicemembers and have a tougher time acquiring an education due to deployment.
  8. Many students are supported by the Americans with Disabilities Act and require alternatives to the traditional classroom setting.
  9. Many students have a diagnosed learning disability, so learning in a traditional environment is more challenging for them.
While this list is not all-inclusive, it highlights the challenges of STEAM education in the traditional brick-and-mortar post-secondary environment. Shockingly, Virginia Tech instructor Mark Sanders states the primary reason for students leaving a STEAM-related field is not because of educational pressures, but is due to societal pressures not related to the discipline itself. Those societal pressures include financial aid, a non-inclusive environment, a lack of cultural relevance and outdated curriculum.

How Do We Fix the US Education System to Produce STEAM Professionals?

Systemic changes are needed to address the U.S. education system. COVID-19 has caused many school districts, colleges and universities to switch to online learning. Could this shift enhance STEAM education by leveling the playing field? Imagine STEAM concepts taught by professionals in that field to a variety of geographically-dispersed students in a variety of languages. Imagine STEAM concepts taught in K-12 curriculum, as well as post-secondary education. What if learning became self-paced, where all students could learn at a pace that suits them? What if post-secondary education became more affordable and accessible to everyone, no matter where they lived? The questions can be endless, but the rewards can be great. Pursuing a “full STEAM ahead” education policy will help to ensure the U.S. has the needed resources not only in the COVID-19 era, but in the years to come.

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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